How to use a Safety Data Sheet (SDS) to identify chemical hazards

Dec 21, 2018 Posted by Walter Ingles

A Safety Data Sheet is an internationally recognised document that outlines the properties of hazardous chemicals. Each SDS follows a consistent and recognisable format set by the GHS, or Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals — so you’ll be able to quickly identify any acute health risks and physical hazards that could affect the health and safety of your workers, your property, or the environment. This blog walks you through the information you’ll find on any SDS and how to use it to identify different types of chemical hazards that could be present at the job site.

REMEMBER: Safety Data Sheets are an important part of the chemical risk management process, but you still need to follow the requirements of Australian Safety Standards, Codes of Practice, and WHS legislation.

Identifying chemical health hazards

Hazardous chemicals can produce a wide range of acute and chronic illness or diseases ranging from burns to the skin, poisoning (if swallowed), and respiratory diseases. The severity of any chemical exposure incident is impacted  by the toxicity of the chemical, how the substance entered the body, how much of the chemical was absorbed or inhaled, and the duration of exposure. There are other factors too, (allergies, age, weight, BMI) but they usually won’t be indicated on a Safety Data Sheet.

There are three key places on an SDS that identify chemical health hazards:

  • Section 2: Hazard identification -  summarises the hazards of the chemical and and provides the mandatory warning information. Use this section to quickly determine if the chemical is toxic, corrosive, or carcinogenic and then for more detailed information about how the chemical could impact your workers refer to Sections 4 and 11.

  • Section 4: First Aid Measures - in this section you can find information on any immediate effects of the chemical (by the different routes of exposure) and the immediate treatment. It should also include any delayed effects and specific health surveillance. For example, IF IN EYES: Rinse cautiously with water for several minutes. Remove contact lenses, if present and easy to do. Continue rinsing.

  • Section 11: Toxicological information: this section will outline the toxicity of the chemical and details things like„ acute toxicity, corrosiveness, carcinogenicity, or able to cause damage to the reproductive system. This section also details both acute and chronic health effects and may also include details of interactive effects (like drinking alcohol or having allergies).

You should also check the SDS to see if the chemical has a workplace exposure standard. This specifies the maximum airborne concentration permitted at the job site.

IMPORTANT: Even when an SDS lists ‘no available data’ in the toxicology section (particularly chronic health effects), you should still exercise caution when using the chemical. It can be difficult to gauge the long term exposure risks of any chemical and things like liver damage, reproductive issues, or cancer may take years to develop. Remember, the longer the exposure, the greater the danger.

Understanding physical hazards and fire risks

A chemical has a physical hazard if it is can:

  • Burn or cause a fire.

  • Explode or release high pressure that could injure someone or damage property.

  • Spontaneously react (either by itself or in contact with water)

There are three sections on the SDS to help you identify physical hazards, and the first place to start is Section 2: Hazard identification. You’ll quickly understand the hazard class (eg, Flammable liquid - Category 1) and the way it could cause a dangerous event of fatality at the workplace (eg, heating may cause a fire) and some of the precautionary measures (eg, keep away from heat/sparks/ open flames/hot surfaces. No smoking).

Once you’ve identified the initial hazard (fire, explosion, reaction) you’ll need to look more closely to determine what type of dangerous events the chemical could cause at your worksite.

Check the following sections of the SDS: 

  • Section 5: Firefighting measures - you should definitely check this section even if the substance itself is not flammable. You will learn how the chemical reacts in a fire (eg, produces oxides of sulphur and nitrogen on combustion) and if you need any special fire fighting equipment.

  • Section 10: Stability and reactivity - this section describes any conditions that could cause the chemical to react or polymerise (eg, dust explosions, reactions that release flammable or toxic gases or vapours). It will also detail if the chemical has any properties that my add to the intensity of a fire (even if the substance itself is non-flammable).

  • Section 9: Physical and Chemical Properties - if the chemical is flammable you should also check the flashpoint in this section.

The SDS is a starting point in your hazard identification processes and you should always conduct further research especially if the SDS indicates the chemicals are also classed as Dangerous Goods under the ADG Code. You can also look in Section 16. Other information for information about relevant Australian Standards and legislation that apply to the chemical.

IMPORTANT: The signal words DANGER or WARNING quickly indicate the severity of a hazard — they will be listed on the SDS. DANGER indicates a significant hazard that must be avoided in order to prevent death or serious injury; WARNING indicates a hazard that is less urgent but still requires proper precautions.

Determining environmental impacts of chemicals

Many hazardous chemicals can negatively affect the environment through emissions, hazardous waste, or toxins entering the soil and waterways. Chemicals with environmental hazards will either display the hazard code GHS09 environment or the international pictogram which depicts a dead tree, damaged waterway, and dead fish in the hazard section of the SDS.

Apart from the hazards section, the SDSs have a number of areas that specify risks to the environment, but primarily you will be referring to Section 12: Ecological information. Section 12 will specify:

  • Ecotoxicity - whether the chemical is toxic to aquatic organisms (fish, crustaceans, algae and other aquatic plants) or terrestrial organisms ( birds, bees and plants, soil micro and macro-organisms).

  • Persistence and degradability - how easily the chemicals breakdown or metabolise eg, persistent chemicals can accumulate in soil and waterways. Some hazardous chemicals can degrade in the environment through processes like oxidation or hydrolysis eg, pesticides.

  • Bioaccumulative potential - this mouthful of a term refers to a chemical’s ability to accumulate in the body of a human or animal and pass through the food chain. Chemicals like lead and mercury usually have bioaccumulative potential.

  • Mobility in soil - this describes how easily the chemical could be absorbed into soil.

  • Other adverse effects - usually refer to the chemical’s potential to deplete the ozone layer or contribute to global warming.

Because the data is presented as a summary (and often no more than a statement of a few words eg, Highly Mobile) you should also check:

  • Section 6: Accidental release measures - summarises a response to a spill, leaks or any other unplanned release of the chemical. Apart from protective measures for staff and clean up methods, this section also lists any environmental precautions (eg, Prevent run-off into drains and waterways). The greater the spill, the greater the potential damage to the environment.

  • Section 13: Disposal considerations - chemical waste can have a big impact on the environment and this section outlines the proper disposal or recycling of the hazardous chemical. You can gain a better understanding of the physical properties of a substance likely to affect disposal and any special precautions for sewerage,  incineration or landfill.

IMPORTANT: Part of your risk management approach will be to determine the potential your organisation has to impact the environment — this is determined by quantities of chemicals used at your worksite. For example, a chemical manufacturing plant with 900 employees has a far greater potential to adversely impact the environment than a vehicle repair shop that employees 3 mechanics.

Next steps

Using Safety Data Sheets to identify chemical hazards is only one step in the risk management process. To gain a full understanding of your responsibility under Australian Work Health and Safety legislation to eliminate or minimise chemical hazards  download our free eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace. We’ll introduce you to a fail-safe way of identifying and assessing chemical hazards. Download and read it today.

How to manage the risk of hazardous chemicals in the workplace

Walter Ingles

Walter Ingles Compliance Specialist

Walter is STOREMASTA’s Dangerous Goods Adviser. He loves helping businesses reduce the risk that Dangerous Goods pose upon their employees, property and the environment through safe and compliant dangerous goods storage solutions.

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